From a review completed by a MA student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, with a focus on modern Jewish thought, Joel Swanson. Joel is interested in the intersections of phenomenology and Jewish theology, and in the unique insights that the rabbinic hermeneutic tradition can contribute to our understanding of postmodern philosophy.
Late in his life, Moses Mendelssohn found himself forced to defend the daily Jewish prayer Aleinu in a public contretemps with the Christian community of Königsberg. Two verses in the prayer, translated as
“For they worship vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save,”
were widely viewed by Christians as an attack on Jesus, a reading based upon the testimony of a fourteenth century Christian convert from Judaism. As a result, in 1703 King Friedrich of Prussia signed an edict forbidding the recitation of these two verses of the Aleinu, and appointing Christian inspectors to enforce this ban. Seventy years later, David Kypke, an orientalist appointed as the inspector of the Königsberg Jewish community, filed a complaint alleging that the Jews purposely mumbled their recitations of the prayer, and therefore that he could not be sure they were not reciting the offending verses. The Jewish community of Königsberg prepared a response to these allegations, and naturally, it fell to Moses Mendelssohn to serve as the emissary to the Christian community and deliver this response.
According to Mendelssohn, Jews continue to recite the Aleinu not to attack other religions as idolatrous, but as a warning against the temptation of idolatry that lurks within all monotheists. Mendelssohn’s defense of Aleinu is a masterful use of emerging Protestant notions of pluralism and interiority to defend a particular Jewish tradition.
Freudenthal, did in fact see these two verses in the Aleinu as an attack on Christians, and no amount of creative rewriting of history on Mendelssohn’s part could change this. In order to defend Judaism before Christian authorities, Mendelssohn wound up redefining his own tradition.